The Best BBQ in St. Louis
'Cue in the Lou
Baby back ribs from PM BBQ
Photographs by Steve Adams, Kevin Roberts, and Carmen Troesser, Illustrations by Rachel Harris
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Years ago, St. Louis distinguished itself, culinarily speaking, with a scattering of Italian restaurants, and Tony’s was at the top of the proverbial hill. And although we had some notable barbecue joints—and even our namesake cut of spareribs—that genre was never, ever part of the landscape. Such conversations began with “Kansas City” and ended with “Memphis,” with no stops in between. Then, pit masters like Mike Mills and Terry Black began racking up ribbons and national Grand Champion awards at Memphis in May, and barbecue nation began smelling our smoke. Today, cravings for a Pappy’s dry-rubbed rib have supplanted yearnings for anybody’s veal Milanese, prompting our announcement that it’s now barbecue season in St. Louis, folks, all year long. We therefore present our favorite barbecue joints—the new, the old, the famous, the infamous—and tips for enjoying what for many typifies summer in St. Louis…the humidity has already received plenty of press. —George Mahe
Best in BBQ Show
The pit master at Bogart’s, Skip Steele, who has worked smoke pits from Memphis to New York to Las Vegas, is making the case for “pit master” to be on par with “chef.” Or maybe even “mad genius,” to judge by the ’cue-linary wizardry he’s conjured since last February on an otherwise unassuming Soulard street corner. He smokes prime rib—repeat, he smokes prime rib—rendering a flavor and mouthfeel that are somehow rich and delicate all at once. As for your more quotidian rib slabs, why, those are finished off with an apricot-imbued glaze hit with a roofer’s torch. The baked beans are homemade and pit-smoked as well, and the chicken wings are a singular indulgence that the master himself doles out to customers waiting in the (fast-moving) ’cue-queue; they’re not on the menu (yet), so Steele passes them out gratis, one more reason why he’s made so many friends, and why his joint is tops in town. 1627 S. Ninth, 314-621-3107, bogartssmokehouse.com.
St. Louis: Known for the Arch, the Cardinals, Then Maybe...
New York once had the Soup Nazi, Chicago still has The Wieners Circle, and we’ve got Pappy’s Smokehouse—that hallowed eatery, exalted by locals and foreigners with equal fanfare, where standing in line has become an integral part of the experience. We’d maybe even say that all of that waiting makes the customer’s eventual spoils taste a little bit better—but could these ribs really taste any better than they already do? 3106 Olive, 314-535-4340, pappyssmokehouse.com
The Shaved Duck
Best Second Effort
When the former duck-heavy eatery turned to barbecue and chili in early 2009, we weren’t sure what to think. On the basis of a midweek visit, though, it’s clear that we’re not the only ones smiling as the city has embraced this reborn restaurant, thanks to standards like pulled pork and ribs, as well as nonstandards like smoked meatloaf and a devilishly addicting concoction called brisket dip (think buffalo chicken dip with brisket and barbecue sauce in place of chicken and hot sauce). 2900 Virginia, 314-776-1407, theshavedduck.com.
Mom Mae's BBQ & Fish
Sweet, Sweet Family
The history of barbecue in America would be hard to write without families like the Dicksons, who own and run Mom Mae’s in Florissant. As you tuck into a plate of massive pork ribs—served with a sweet barbecue sauce over slices of white bread—do so in view of the family tree on the restaurant’s wall and share in their story, a tale punctuated by special spice rubs tempered by the slow smoking of wood. 3807 Vaile, 314-837-4111.
Where to Get BBQ Now
With all due respect to Mom’s short ribs, the burnt ends at this West County gem make for one of the best Sunday suppers we’ve ever experienced. Carved from the point of BBQ ASAP’s championship brisket, sections of smoky beef are slowly braised in fat drippings and jus until the already-tender meat shreds into decadent ribbons of what can only be called “barbecue nirvana.” Get some religion, ASAP. 15581 Manchester, 636-256-1908, bbqasap.com.
BBQ so Hypnotic You'll See Purple Dinosaurs
What makes Barney’s great is what Barney’s is not. It is not open year-round, only during the summer months between Memorial Day and Labor Day, so a visit feels like as much of a dog-day tradition as fireworks or Fair St. Louis. Barney’s does not serve your typical fall-off-the-bone, slathered-in-sauce ribs. Instead, they’re toothsomely tough, cooked over homemade charcoal and sided with a Carolina-cider-style jus. But that doesn’t really matter, because you’re not going to Barney’s for ribs. You’re there for the birds, chicken and turkey, smoked better here than just about anywhere else in the state, and that pumpkin cake, the best out-of-season dessert you’ll find this season. 16011 Manchester, 636-227-2300, barneysbbq.com.
As you enter the 10-seat takeout storefront, a thick plume of hickory smoke clairvoyantly signals you to abandon any other options and simply succumb to a tasty slab of the namesake dish at Roper’s. But as good as the ribs are, it’s the infectious smile of owner Denise Roper that wins you over from her perch in the window as her husband, Carl, tends a smoker that’s garnered a list of awards as long as a slab of spares. 6929 W. Florissant, 314-381-6200, ropersribs.com.
PM BBQ is known Valley-wide for its half-chicken dinners, excellent side dishes, and the magical way that a stripe of mustard-based barbecue sauce cranks up the volume on a slab of bark-encrusted ribs. But owners Paul Lamers and Mark Ruck (P and M) have also channeled the smoke spirits of Central Texas to turn some of the finest beef brisket in town, where perfectly rendered fat keeps each thick-cut slice moist. Sauce isn’t needed here; if you must, though, reach for a squeeze of PM’s spicy red barbecue sauce. 103 Chesterfield Towne Center, 636-536-1966, pmbbq.com.
Super Smokers BBQ
From the 'Cue Come Legends
The trophies and memorabilia lining the walls of the Super Smokers rib shack attest to Terry Black’s kitchen prowess. The pit master has won some of the most prestigious barbecue cook-offs in the U.S., and what’s more, he’s the godfather of our burg’s burgeoning barbecue scene (Mike Emerson of Pappy’s Smokehouse is a former employee; Bogart’s pit master Skip Steele, a former partner). Super Smokers’ mainstay is the slow-smoked ribs, legendary bones that don’t need any sauce—but you might try a taste of the seven varieties Black makes available at each table, just to see how complex something so simple can become. 601 Stockell, Eureka, 636-938-9742; 7409 Highway N, Dardenne Prairie, 636-614-1183; supersmokers.com.
17th Street BBQ
The Home of Regal Ribs
They call Mike Mills “The Legend” and “The King of Swine” because he’s won three Grand Champion awards at the Memphis in May’s World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest; he’s a partner in Danny Meyer’s Blue Smoke in NYC (it’s Mills’ sauce on the tables); Bon Appétit dubbed his ribs the best in the U.S. Now will you make the drive to see what the all the hubbub‘s about? 1711 W. Highway 50, O’Fallon, Ill., 618-622-1717, 17thstreetbarbecue.com.
Lil' Mickey's Memphis Barbeque
A Place Worth Getting Lost For
Lil’ Mickey’s sits deep in St. Charles County, confusingly tucked a few blocks west of its nearest exit (Cave Springs Road). Get off there, and be on the lookout for the old-school hacienda-style Taco Bell turned Memphis barbecue mecca. Its barbecue shoulder sandwiches (pulled or chopped), topped with tangy slaw and the perfect sweet—but not too sweet—Memphis-style sauce, are the best you’ll get without a much longer drive. 1020 Cave Springs Blvd., St. Peters, 636-922-4227, lilmickeysbbq.com.
The Rib Shack
Let's Not Be Snooty About It
What bacon is for pretentious “foodies,” snoot is for the serious gourmet. It’s salty, crunchy-crispy; the aroma alone is seductive. Yes, the potential gross-out factor’s significant—it’s pig nose, after all. But sliced into thin chunks and deep-fried to a rich mahogany, layered atop white bread, with the Shack’s marvelous peppery-sweet barbecue sauce on top and on the side for dipping, a mound of collards and mac salad keeping it company, it’s a splendid, decidedly non-snooty indulgence. 8642 Natural Bridge, 314-427-1777, ribshackstl.com.
Main Street BBQ
We’ll wager the sliced-brisket and pulled-pork Boarish Steer sandwich pushes the needle above 8 ounces—even before the grilled onions, pickles, and squirt of spicy sauce. Opt for the homemade redskin potato salad and classic coleslaw, and get that leviathan cut in half or look around for a second set of hands. At $7.99, it’s the perfect splitter. 1620 Highway Z, Pevely, 636-475-3400, bbqonmain.com.